Getting Creative With Indy 500’s Audio, RF
All the drivers in this year’s Indianapolis 500 had their tricks in taking a turn or passing on the inside. In the trucks in the broadcast compound, where ESPN was beaming the race to millions of viewers in what has become its single biggest event production as well as the world’s largest single-day sports event, the mixers had a few tricks of their own.
The best was submixer Steve Urick’s use of a basic Ernie Ball volume pedal, tucked under the Calrec console in NEP’s SS21C unit, which also handled tape and engineering duties (the A unit was responsible for production and graphics, SS21B for main audio and EVS replay). Using a technique he originally developed for golf shows, Urick creates a bed of ambient sound, comprising some effects and crowd sources, which acts as a consistent foundation for much of the race but is generic enough that key effects sounds cut through it easily.
That track is routed through the pedal, which is set to the fully on position most of the time. When the director calls for a quick cut to the interior of a car, Urick is able to instantly remove that foundational track, subliminally adding to the shift in perspective that transports the viewer sharply from the grandstand into the cockpit.
It also keeps Urick’s hands free to manage the 160 microphone elements coming in from 75 points around the track, the source of the show’s high-impact sound effects. These elements included approach and reverse mics in the turns, which created Doppler effects, and the in-car audio, including team and driver RF supplied by Broadcast Sports Inc. (BSI). This year, some new ones were added, including a wireless microphone for the Iconix grass cams near the turns.
“We always got a good feel for the action from the microphones on the wall and the fence there, but the cars dive down low so we could never really get a mic in there to catch that,” Urick says. “So, this year, we took [an AKG C] 535 with a [Sennheiser] SK 250 transmitter buried so that just the antenna is sticking up over the grass, and now we got the punch we wanted.” He adds that that particular transmitter is pulled in by BSI’s ground-based antenna array.
A1 Denis Ryan, working on a Calrec Alpha aboard SS21B, says an enhanced collaboration with IMS Productions, the speedway’s own production company, increased the variety of audio this year, with ESPN’s and IMS’s trucks linked by MADI and CobraNet connections. But, despite sheer numbers of Sennheiser, Shure, Audio-Technica, and other microphones, there was still plenty of need for nuance, such as the touch of low end that Ryan adds to the midrange-heavy natural sound of the Indy car.
“These don’t have the same kind of low end that NASCAR naturally does,” he says. “They’re revving at 11,000, 12,000 rpm; it’s more of a buzz than a rumble, so I put a little of that in.”
According to Dennis Cleary, associate director, remote production operations, ESPN, and the technical director for all of the network’s motorsports programming, the fact that the truck had already been configured for earlier Grand Prix shows helped streamline this year’s setup process.
“We tried to keep a lot of the infrastructure from the Grand Prix in place, so the machines stayed where they were and we just moved the KVM [switchers] over,” he explains. “This year was also a bit easier because of the way we planned the integration between IMS and our trucks.” That also helped manage the larger number of cameras used this year: a total of 85, including onboard cameras in 12 of the 33 cars competing.
BSI provided those cameras, and EIC Dom Cubranich, who managed antennas for cameras as well as for team radios aboard the truck, constantly monitored signal frequency and amplitude. “There’s so many frequencies, so much RF,” he says. “And there are dead spots around the track, too.”
BSI GM Peter Larsson says spectrum loss continues to be the number-one challenge at large-scale sports events. He notes the increased presence of “cells on wheels” (COWs) that increasingly compete for RF real estate with other spectrum users, including at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“COWs come in at pretty serious power levels and put the antennas close to ours,” he points out. “We try to do what we can to maximize our wireless operations.”
In this case, that included using the 1.4 GHz frequency range for the onboard car cameras, spectrum usually reserved for military telemetry and available through a special temporary authority from the FCC.
Larsson found encroachment of cellular voice and data traffic to be graphically evident: “We see the noise floor looking very good on test days on the spectrum analyzer, and then race day comes, and you watch it spike.”